The UK Royal Air Force should be able to commence training activities with its first upgraded Eurocopter Puma HC2 support helicopters from the middle of next year, says minister for defence equipment, support and technology Philip Dunne.
"We currently expect to field the initial aircraft for training by mid-2013 and incrementally expand the capacity and capability of the Puma Mk2 force over the subsequent two years," Dunne says. However, he cautions: "There have been some delays to aspects of the project and work is being undertaken to understand whether this will impact on fielding plans."
A Eurocopter-led life extension programme is equipping 24 of the RAF's existing Puma HC1s with more powerful engines, modern avionics equipment and other improvements, which are intended to keep the aircraft in operational use until 2025. The first modified example was recently delivered for flight testing at the Ministry of Defence's Qinetiq-run Boscombe Down site in Wiltshire.
The MoD says 21 Pumas have now entered the HC2 conversion programme, including four trial examples modified by Eurocopter in France. The remainder are being worked on at the company's Brasov subsidiary in Romania, with the first of these having been flown in upgraded form for the first time on 18 September.
The total cost of the life-extension effort is expected to be completed within an approved budget of £339 million ($537 million), says Dunne. Aircraft deliveries will conclude during 2014, the MoD adds.
The modernised Pumas will form part of the RAF's future support helicopter force, along with an expanded fleet of 60 upgraded Boeing CH-47 Chinook HC4 and new-build Chinook HC6 transports. AgustaWestland AW101 support helicopters being operated by the service's 28 and 78 squadrons are to be transferred to the Royal Navy as replacements for its Commando Helicopter Force's remaining Westland Sea Kings.